CP&Sr comment. This is an amazing conversion story and one that we would be wise to take to heart this Lent. Remember: presumption is a widespread sin in our times, and perhaps the majority of us are guilty of it to a greater or lesser degree. To be a baptised Catholic, or even a Catholic priest, is no guarantee that our destiny will be Heaven. Yes, God is love, God is merciful, but He is Justice first of all. If our sins of commission and omission are not forgiven in the Sacrament of Confession we will be held to account for them when we die. Hell exists, but God does not send us there. It is a choice we make. Our Lady, refuge of sinners, is our advocate and we should nurture a true devotion to her.
A personal near-death experience, by Fr. Steven Scheier
October 18, 1985 will be a date that I will remember until I take my dying breath. At this time, I was a Diocesan priest in the Diocese of Wichita and was stationed in a small town in Southeast Kansas by the name of Fredonia. I was pastor of a parish named Sacred Heart. On that particular day, I decided to go to Wichita, Kansas, about eighty-six miles away to get some advice on a parish problem from one of my brother priests. I didn’t have any appointments that day or that evening and I recall that going to Wichita was a first in my stay in Fredonia.
I had to travel to Wichita by way of a State highway called Highway 96. This particular highway was one that had no shoulders, was very, very hilly and went through the Flint Hills. It was traversed by big trucks and semis and was very dangerous, to say the least. I remember returning from Wichita late in the afternoon; and that is the last thing I remember. I was involved in a head-on collision with a truck from Hutchison, Kansas. There were three persons in that vehicle. Nobody was killed in the accident thank God! As a result of the collision, I was thrown out of my vehicle (I was not wearing my seatbelt at the time) and landed on the ground outside my car. I suffered a major head concussion at the time and the scalp on the right side of my head was ripped from my skull. That is, as far as I remember, and I don’t clearly remember anything.
Not Expected to Live
Behind me, traveling on the same highway was a Mennonite nurse from Fontenac, Kansas, who stopped and stayed with me until the ambulance came and picked me up. It was because of her expertise that it was discovered that I had suffered a broken neck. She informed the drivers of the ambulance when they arrived to treat me accordingly. Had my head been turned either way at the scene of the accident, I would have died of asphyxiation. I later learned that I had suffered a C-2 break of the vertebrae of the neck which they refer to as the “hang-man’s break”, because this is the break of the neck that occurs when a person is hung by the neck. I was taken by ambulance to a nearby town called Eureka, which had a small hospital. The doctor in charge sewed my scalp back on my skull and then, realizing that he couldn’t do anything else for me, called the Lifewatch helicopter from Wesley Hospital in Wichita, Kansas to come and pick me up.
As the helicopter was lifting off the hospital grounds in Eureka, the doctor said to his sister, who was a nurse, that he didn’t expect me to survive the trip between Eureka and Wichita, which was not that far away.
Upon arrival in Wichita, the helicopter landed on top of Wesley Hospital, a Methodist hospital, and I was rushed to the Trauma Center. I was treated there and then admitted to the main hospital in the Intensive Care Unit. I was only about five blocks from my home in Wichita, so my mother, who was still living at the time, came up to the hospital that night and stayed with me. I was assigned to a neurosurgeon who worked at the hospital and had his office in Wichita; and he treated me according to the damage that I suffered. I did not have to have surgery for fusion; I was put into traction and was also fitted for what is normally referred to as a “halo”. The technical term for this orthotic device is called a cervical thoracic orthosis. This orthotic device is used to treat a lot of neck injuries. The “halo” was around my head with four screws, two in the front and two in the back, screwed into my skull, so that I could not bend or move my neck in any way. This device was fitted onto a “jacket” which was irremovable also. I wore these two devices for a period of almost eight months. I do remember that at one time, during visitation hours at the hospital, the screw came out of the head. I have never felt pain like that before or since. Apparently, along with this orthotic device, I was also put in traction so that the bones of the vertebrae could be aligned and start the healing process. I don’t remember this procedure at all! The doctors told me that since I lived through this accident they expected that I would be laying on my back, looking up at the ceiling for the rest of my life, completely paralyzed from the neck down. Apparently, God had other plans!
Prayers of the Faithful
The evening of the accident, a phone call came into the hospital from one of the parishioners at Sacred Heart in Fredonia asking a nurse on my floor about my condition. This person was told by the nurse on duty that evening that the doctors were giving me a 15% chance to live. That was pretty serious! I later heard that on the evening of the accident the doors of my church, Sacred Heart, were opened for people to come in and pray for me. The Christian church and the Methodist church in Fredonia also opened their doors that night so people could come in and pray for me. The Assembly of God Minister later told me that he spent the entire night in prayer for me. I was also on the Mennonite prayer line. So I had a lot of prayer support. I later heard that my parish prayed the Rosary twice a day for me: once in the morning and then again in the evening.
Toward the end of my recovery period in the hospital, my neurosurgeon assigned me to a Clinical Psychologist for treatment called Concussive Head Syndrome. This therapy was greatly needed and appreciated. I could stand very little emotional trauma and very little sound. It was good to talk to a person who seemed to know what I was going through and what I needed. I was released from the hospital December 2, 1985 and then went home to recuperate as best I could with my mom and my younger brother who lived not too far away in Wichita. One of my other brothers was home on leave from the Navy, and so he was in the house night and day – to my benefit. My doctor informed me that I made record time in recovering from my injury and that in the report he could not use the word “miracle” but that anyone reading my report would have to come to that conclusion on their own.
My bishop, who was the Bishop of the Wichita Diocese, left my parish in Fredonia vacant as far as a permanent pastor was concerned. A priest was sent to the parish to have weekend liturgies there and at Neodesha until I was completely recovered. I was sent back to the parish in Fredonia in May of 1986. I remember having to shop for another automobile and then travel the same highway back to my parish. I am glad that I had to do it, but I recall that it was a difficult experience at the time. I had gone back to the parish previously in April of the same year for First Holy Communion. Another priest of the Diocese took me down that particular weekend so that I could be there for this special event.
I was treated very well upon my return to Sacred Heart Parish and the city of Fredonia. My parishioners were quick to tell me of their concern and their prayers for my recovery and my return. The people of Fredonia, Kansas, and especially Sacred Heart Parish, are a God-fearing, Catholic people who take their religion very seriously. When I returned, it was noticeable that they did not demand much from me because of my previous condition. This fact was very much appreciated by myself and made a big difference on my performance at the parish there and in Neodesha at St. Ignatius Parish.
One day, not too long after my return to the parish, I was saying morning Mass as I was accustomed to, when something extremely supernatural happened. I was about to read the Gospel for that day, a Gospel that we have heard many times throughout the years. It is from the Gospel according to Luke. To be exact, it was Luke 13:6-9 and it read this way: “And he told them this parable: There once was a person who had a fig tree planted in his orchard, and when he came in search of fruit on it but found none, he said to the gardener, ‘For three years now I have come in search of fruit on this fig tree but have found none. (So) I cut it down. Why should it exhaust the soil?’ He said to him in reply, ‘Sir, leave it for this year also, and I shall cultivate the ground around it and fertilize it; it may bear fruit in the future. If not you can cut it down.’”
When I read this passage from the Scripture, it was as if I was remembering a conversation. Besides this, the page itself, from the Lectionary, became illumined, enlarged and actually came off of the Lectionary toward me. I had to finish Mass as normally as I could and when I was finished, I went to my rectory, sat down in my lounge chair with about four cups of coffee and tried to remember why this particular gospel brought back so many memories – and memories concerning what?
It did not take long before everything seemed to come back to me. The following seemed to happen immediately after the accident. I was before the Throne of Judgment! Jesus Christ was the Judge. I didn’t see Him, I merely heard Him. What took place was instantaneous as far as “our time” is concerned. He went through my entire life on earth and accused me of sins of commission and omission that were unconfessed and therefore unforgiven and unrepented sins. To each offense, I said, “Yes, Lord!” I had planned that when this would happen I would have all kinds of excuses to say to the Lord. For example, “Well, Lord, you know, she was a pretty feisty woman, and one lost his patience very easily with her all the time!” Well, when you are talking to Truth personified, you don’t have any excuses; so all you say is “Yes, Lord!”
Mother – He’s Yours
He reached the end of my judgement and said to me, “Your sentence is hell!” Again, I said, “Yes Lord, I know!” It was the only logical conclusion that He could have come up with. It was not a shock to my system! It was as if He were honoring my choice, my decision. I had chosen my sentence; He was merely honoring my choice. It was then, after He had said this that I heard a woman’s voice, “Son, would You spare his life and his immortal soul?” The Lord said, “Mother, he has been a priest twelve years not for himself and not for me; let him reap the punishment he deserves!” She, in reply said, “But Son, what if we give to him special graces and strengths and then see if he bears fruit. If not, Your will be done!” There was a very short pause and then I heard Him say, “Mother, he’s yours!” And I have been hers both naturally and supernaturally now for the past twelve years. I don’t believe that I could have been without her for the length of time that she was absent from my life and my spirituality.
He Got My Attention
Now, many will say to me, “But Father, you must have had a special devotion to the Blessed Mother before this happened. No wonder she interceded for you!” To this, I have to say no! This is an indictment against me as a priest, but I have to say that as far as my belief in the angels, the saints, the Blessed Mother, I believed all right, but with my head – ‘head’ knowledge, not with my heart, a heart knowledge. The angels and saints were to me like imaginary playmates. I believed in them, but they were not real! I discovered by this accident just how real they are! It took this accident to focus my attention on the Lord! One has to remember the day that Jesus died on Calvary. Mary, his mother and the disciple whom He loved, John, were at the foot of the cross when Jesus looked down upon them and lovingly said, “Woman, behold your son! Son, behold your mother!” It was at this juncture that Jesus gave to His mother all of us, her sons and daughters, as her children. She takes this very seriously! She would come to the aid of anyone and intercede for him or her as she interceded for me; I was not special! I have learned since the accident, a very important truth concerning the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. To whatever the Blessed Mother wants, God – Father, Son, or Holy Spirit – cannot say ‘no’ to her! It is impossible for them to say this!
Another fact that I have learned since the accident is that I was saved from physical and spiritual death for two reasons. The first reason is: hell exists; and secondly, and just as important is the fact that: priests are liable to hell also! In this age, a lot of people tend to dismiss the fact that God is all just. They think, and wrongly so, that God is love and that He wouldn’t punish anyone for eternity. This is a fallacy! We are, all of us, liable to keeping God’s Commandments and making use of the Sacrament of Reconciliation to have our sins forgiven. If we think we don’t sin, then maybe we had better do more complete examination of conscience. One of the truths that I learned in my experience is the fact that God doesn’t send anyone to Heaven or Hell, we choose that, we make that decision; He merely honors and confirms our choice.
One must be attuned to the reality that because a priest wears that piece of white plastic in his collar he is not guaranteed heaven. The matter is quite the opposite; a priest is just as accountable (and maybe even more so) as any layperson to keeping God’s Commandments and brings the type of priest that he is ordained to be for the people and for Jesus Christ. The Blessed Mother, Mary, has said many times that we are to pray for priests and not criticize them. Now, more than ever, in the age in which we live, it is easy to criticize a priest or bishop whom we feel is off the orthodox track. We have to remember the Blessed Virgin’s mandate to us!
The Experience Changed Me
I have been asked many times: How has this experience changed me? There is really no way I can answer this question completely. I have to say that, as a priest and a pastor, I shepherded and pastored myself those years. Father Steve Scheier was number one and was of major concern. I never “got into” the priesthood, as such! I was not very spiritual and my prayer life was practically nil. Of course, many others (parishioners and fellow priests) believed quite the opposite; I did not show these problem areas very readily to anyone. I was very much surprised during my judgment that Jesus did not take a popularity poll. It was strictly He and I, and He knew me better than a thousand other people. I realized then that I had only Him to please and that my concern in pleasing (or trying to please) countless others, was a total waste of time and energy. I am now t-r-y-i-n-g to be a better priest than I was before. I thank the Lord and His Blessed Mother constantly for giving me a second chance. I try to keep in focus the only thing that matters and that I almost lost for all eternity – the chance to get to Heaven and be with God, the Angels and Saints for eternity!
I would like to preface my remarks from here on by saying to those for whom the following applies, that I love you as my brother priests and as my brothers and sisters in Christ. What I will say does not mean that I was never guilty of such actions, intentions or omissions, it rather points to errors that are still being made today in Jesus’ Church by His ministers and by His followers. I see many areas to be addressed today and I can truthfully say that I owe my expertise to the fact that I was judged by Almighty God and was spared in His Divine Mercy. The following is the second part, and the most important part of my experience that I have to address to the Catholic Church worldwide.
Importance of Confession
The first area that needs attention all over the world is the matter of confession. One only has to go to a parish on a weekend to see the downfall and collapse of this great sacrament that was instituted by Christ Himself. Jesus instituted this sacrament with His first appearance to His Apostles after He rose from the dead. The first words He said after He came through the bolted door was, “Peace be with you.” Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” And when He had said this, He breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.” (John 20:21-22). This is why confession takes place (thus the Sacrament of Reconciliation) and why priests are the recipients of such power to forgive or to withhold forgiveness. So, what’s the problem? The problem is that there are fewer and fewer who feel any sense of guilt and consequently, feel that they have not sinned! If one does not feel any guilt, there is no need to go to confession – one (in his or her mind) has not sinned. So, where does society get this notion? I blame a great deal on psychologists and psychiatrists who have told people (and sometimes publicly) that they don’t have to feel guilty about this or that, they should put the blame on their parents in bringing them up the way they did, or blame the environment which contributed to the problem facing the client – the task or solution is to completely eradicate guild in a person. This is one of the greatest phenomena that have contributed to the decline in confessions today.
Another reason for the decline is the fact that “some” priests, as well- intentioned as they are, advise the penitent that he or she does not have to go to confession “often” and then, when the penitent verbalizes a sin or number of sins, the confessor is quick to tell the penitent that such- and-such is not sinful, but a result of tension, anxiety or over tiredness. Consequently, the penitent is made to feel or think that most of all of his or her sins are really not sinful at all, but merely human weaknesses that are due to some physical abnormality or phenomenon.
Most Catholics do not have a choice in confessors. Some go to other parishes where there is a priest who is more traditional in his treatment of the penitent. But some feel that they cannot leave parish boundaries to attain the peace of mind and soul that they are so desperately looking for. The results of the encounters are that people no longer feel a need to go to confession; plus they feel that the confessor is not as compassionate and understanding as priests used to be.
One of the biggest atrocities of the priesthood today, and raging rampant in all parts of the United States at this time, is the verbalization of opinions by priests to laity about matters of Church doctrine. Priests sometimes forget that they are ordained as representatives of the Church, and therefore, should preach what the Church teaches. If a priest wishes to give his own opinion on a matter that has been strictly defined by the Magisterium of the Church, then he should take off his collar and tell those whom he addresses that the following is his opinion regarding the matter. This goes for confessional practice and for the pulpit as well. Priests are ordained ministers of the Church!
One of the greatest omissions in parish life the past twenty-five or twenty-six years, is the fact that priests have not mentioned or directed in their homilies the subjects of “hell” and “eternal damnation.” If this is the fact, and it is, then the idea of a parishioner feeling or coming to terms with the fact that they should go to confession is totally missing. We have not wanted to upset parishioners! We especially do not want to upset wealthy parishioners who write large checks to the parish and are “good givers.” Consequently, what has been addressed in sermons has been peace, love, and joy; these, to be sure, will not upset anyone and consequently, the priest will have given a “good” sermon that weekend! Here again, if there is no guilt, then there is no sin; so why should a parishioner go to confession? The reality, too, is that Father wants to be “popular.” He wants people to go away from his parish feeling good, not guilty; and he wants most of all for people to say on their way out of church, “Father, that was a fantastic sermon you gave!”
The second area that has to be addressed in our discussion of the misfortunes of the Church today is the area of prayer or non-prayer! The obviously “with it” parish is the one that you can pick up a document from which informs you of all of the organizations in the parish that are there to facilitate healing processes and generally, whatever area of interest or problem area that one is encountering. Organizations for the recently divorced or widowed; for singles, for parents, etc…..and the fact is that most of these organizations are nothing more than “socials” where a person is made to feel like he or she can be helped in their situation because there are other people encountering the same situation.
Whatever Happened to Prayer
Whatever happened to prayer? Ever since Vatican II, which was greatly misinterpreted and misunderstood, a lot of para-liturgical services have been unduly dismissed from parishes all over the world – at the discretion of the pastor! Prayer vigils such as novenas and Holy Hours, Benediction and even Perpetual Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament [in the past were often deleted from parish activities.] It seems as if we were proclaiming, “Prayer is useless, let’s have a problem-solving situation or organization to remedy the situation!” Prayer was “needed” in the past, why not now? And then too, there might be another reason for the demise of prayer situations. These services take “TIME” and that’s one thing the priest doesn’t want his parishioners to think he has too much of. And too, a prayer service may take away from the priest’s TV time or going-out-to-relax time with friends who are parishioners or who might be other priests. The “sign” that a lot of priests wear is the sign which tells parishioners, “I’m exhausted, please don’t ask me to do anything else!” Consequently, the parish priest has more and more and more time to do absolutely nothing.
Church Being Stripped
Another area where we are seeing a definite decline in traditional spirituality is seen in what is happening or what has happened to many of our churches on the inside. In the name of “ecumenism” a lot is being done that strips us of our Catholic faith and makes us something less than whom we have been baptized to be. Many churches now do not have kneelers – theatre seats are sufficient! There are no stations of the Cross, no statues, no vigil lights or candles, no pictures of Jesus, Mary or one of the saints, and no crucifix (there may be a cross but the crucifix is definitely out). Also, the “presidential chair” has replaced the tabernacle at the center of the sanctuary. Father is now the focal point, not some non-descript vault that just has “wafers of bread” in it. The tabernacle is now “off to the side” or, unfortunately, in another room in the church, but definitely out-of-sight! The actions of “believers” are concomitant with the atmosphere, or lack thereof, of the inside of these churches. Instead of genuflecting in front of the Blessed Sacrament, Father or the parishioners give a little bow. The parishioners have been encouraged, and/or forced, to remain standing for the Consecration. Kneeling is so old-fashioned, don’t you know?
One too, might look at how parishioners dress for Mass these days – very casual, if not slovenly!
One might mention also that the more fastidious of parishes today have lay ministers who have been commissioned to do almost everything in a parish except say Mass, hear confessions, marry and bury. I know of a certain parish in Washington State where the pastor has a laywoman give the homily at Masses during the weekend for three weekends out of four.
At some parishes, the priest will sit in the chair at communion time while an extraordinary minister distributes Holy Communion under one of both species. This is forbidden! But it seems that the less Father has to do, the better!
In the 1950’s, one heard the comment that there was no greater fraternity than the fraternity of priests. At that time, that was probably a true statement of where the priesthood was and what priests meant to each other. But things have changed since then and it is a whole new “ball game.” Priests now are not so supportive of fellow priests. In one diocese in the United States, and I suspect that the same holds true to some extent for every diocese throughout the world, there are generally two ways of looking at one’s fellow priests: one, is that Father is doing a magnificent job and is really trying and his fellow priests are saying “What is he trying to prove?” The other is the fact that Father may have made some error grave or minute, and his fellow priests say: “See, I told you so. What else could you expect from someone like that?” This is sad, to say the least! Where is a priest to turn for help? If one goes to a fellow priest for help spiritually or otherwise, the invitation will come automatically to “have a drink” or to “discuss football or basketball” teams and scores. After all, when priests get together, they shouldn’t talk “shop”, they should enjoy their golf game or their dinner out and not turn the situation into some counseling session. But, ironically enough, we still have in our dioceses priests who are referred to as “a priest’s priest.” Other priests see these men as holy and gifted and priests one could go to if needed by any priest who was having difficulties with almost anything.
The final area of concern of our purposes is that of CCD classes. At least since the beginning of the 70’s, our CCD texts have been void of Catholic doctrine and dogma. I have seen primary CCD class texts that have a picture of a smiling Jesus on one page and then on the other is the bold-type sentence that says: JESUS LOVES YOU! That is what our children have been learning all these past years. They have been left out in learning the commandments, the laws of the Church, mortal and venial sin and the difference between the two. They have been denied learning how to make a good confession by examining one’s conscience. They have been denied learning what is possible short of faith concerning the Real Presence of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. The ultra-casual way of receiving Holy Communion by the faithful has added to this dilemma. Many parents do not go to Confession, so their children do not go either. And many parents do not make their children go to either Confession or to CCD anymore. Parents, after all, want their children to love them; consequently, they don’t make their children do anything they don’t want to do!
The list of monstrosities could go on and on, but this gives to the priest and the layperson some idea of the direction that the Church is now heading. Where will all of this lead us? I am not a prophet, but I do know that this most assuredly is not what Our Lord intended His Church to do or to be! Is it too late to change? Again, what Jesus is saying to us and has always said is that it is never too late to change. He states that we should take advantage of His mercy while we still can, because when He comes as Judge, it will be too late for His mercy! He is patient, He is merciful and He is loving!